Tackle inequality and improve health: LGBT health and wellbeing

Physio staff are well placed to support people from the LGBT community, says physio Maeve O’Neill from the Rainbow Project in Belfast.

Despite advances in equality legislation, research has shown that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) have poorer emotional health and wellbeing than the population at large. In Northern Ireland the LGBT community are six times more likely to experience depression and three times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts. Almost one in two (45 per cent) has self-harmed (Through our minds, published by the Rainbow Project in 2013). 
The experiences of invisibility, violence, discrimination and prejudice help to explain the poorer emotional health and wellbeing experienced by LGBT people. This contributes to higher levels of alcohol, smoking and drug misuse, an increased risk of homelessness, higher levels of obesity among LGB women, poor uptake of cancer screening programmes, and, importantly for physio staff, barriers to accessing healthcare services. The healthcare professions take pride in the philosophy that all patients receive equal care. Yet prejudice, fears, and stereotyping are so deeply ingrained in our society that discrimination is widespread. 
What can we do as physiotherapists to promote equality and inclusion? We need to explore our own attitudes and knowledge about the LGBT community and the language we use with our patients. We need to look at the environment in which we work, offering promotional materials and posters with same sex couples and gender neutral language. 
We must introduce monitoring of sexual orientation and gender identity to establish a baseline in terms of access. This allows us to target, to take steps to redress low uptake, and to offer patients opportunities to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity.
A zero tolerance approach to discrimination of any sort is paramount if we are to eradicate homophobia, biphobia and transphobia from our society – as well as racism, ageism, ableism, and any other form of discrimination. We must reach out assertively.
What do we do to make sure that our services are promoted to vulnerable groups? This is a question we must always ask ourselves, so that those most in need in our society can access our services.
Physiotherapy staff are in a prime position to deliver health improvement interventions, and to recognise if someone has mental health difficulties.
We need to be aware of the factors affecting a person’s health and wellbeing. We are also excellent at signposting people on to relevant community services, once we are aware of their existence. 
There are many excellent LGBT-specific services all over the UK. These organisations often provide expertise and training to healthcare professionals on how to make their services more LGBT inclusive.
The Rainbow Project is the largest organisation working to improve the health and wellbeing of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland.
Find out about your local LGBT health and wellbeing centre, build connections and take a step on the journey towards an equal society for everyone.
  • Maeve O’Neill is a health and wellbeing officer with the Rainbow Project, a Northern Ireland organisation that works to improve the health and wellbeing of the LGBT community.
Maeve O’Neill from the Rainbow Project

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